A magazine article about the world record bee beard attempt of Philip McCabe that took place in Ireland on 25th June 2005, using bees provided by the Galtee Bee Breeding Group. This article was published in An Beachaire, Apimondia edition.

Brat na mBeach Dubha – The Cloak of Black Bees

High Objectives

When Philip McCabe, President of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations first mentioned to me that he would like to have a go at beating the world record for a beard of bees I was intrigued by the idea. When he asked me if I would provide the bees I readily agreed. What an achievement it would be for the native Irish Black Bee and how it would confound the critics who considered all strains of our native bee to be aggressive. Philip’s motives were certainly worthwhile. He hoped to raise a good deal of money for two charitable organisations that supply bees, equipment and training for beekeepers in Third World countries, namely Bees for Development and Bothar, the Irish based organisation that provides livestock including bees to families in Africa mainly. As President of Apimondia 2005, Philip also wished to obtain publicity for that event which would take place in Ireland for the first time ever. What a publicity stunt and hopefully the money will continue to pour into the coffers of the charities involved.

Docile Bees

Philip has such a persuasive nature combined with an infectious enthusiasm that I was swept off my feet by the idea. However when I began to consider the real implications involved in this undertaking I began to reconsider my position. I had to realise that the current world record had been established in California with Italian bees which are renowned both for their docility and prolificacy. In general the Dark European Bee is regarded as over-aggressive by comparison with other European races. Members of BIBBA who have been working with this bee for some time know that this is far from true as the temperament of the Dark Bee ranges from very aggressive to very docile and very often it is the hybridisation with other races which has resulted in extreme bad temper. When beekeepers eliminate hybrids, make an effort to study and record the behaviour of their colonies and then select and cull accordingly they find that in a very short time the temperament of their colonies has improved beyond all expectations. Members of GBBG who have practiced this simple system have gone a long way towards achieving this over the past decade or so.

What an Order!

I knew I could produce docile bees for Philip’s beard but when he mentioned 500,000 bees I realised that it was much more than an ordinary beard. He said that that amount of bees would weigh well in excess of 100 lbs or 50 Kg. How many hives would I need? The typical figure that is often mentioned for peak hive populations in Ireland is 60,000 to 80,000. I think about half this figure would be more accurate although I do not know if anybody actually counted the number of bees in a hive in this country. Say if the peak population had reached 35,000, and the hives had not swarmed, it would take every bee in about 15 hives to make up the half million required. So if one took half the bees from each hive, which would be the most likely scenario that might still result in the survival of the colony, it would need about thirty hives that had not yet swarmed. What an order in a year like this! As it transpired we had to take at least half and sometimes more than half the population from twenty-five hives.

Selecting the Bees

Many of these hives were quite weak after the winter and some were actually over wintered as nuclei. Due to the poor spring weather conditions resulting in slow development of all colonies the selected stocks got stimulative feeding right up to mid June. Most of the selected colonies were descended from one breeder queen, DR22/03 which was a direct descendant of BK6/90 which was the ancestor of one of my original docile breeding lines. In the autumn of 2004 I had selected or requeened more than twenty colonies with daughters or grand daughters of DR22/03. Unfortunately my winter survival assessment revealed that only eleven of these queens had survived. It was therefore necessary to select close to twenty more docile colonies in order to provide sufficient quite and sedate bees for the “beard”.

Colony Assessments

Through April, May and June, as well as the normal colony evaluations I did extra assessments on the selected colonies. This consisted of manipulating the colonies without gloves. Finger stingers had to be excluded from the final selection and other colonies had to be selected in their place to make up the number required for the final selection. The week before the event I went through all these colonies twice and “to make assurance doubly sure” I called in two skilled assessors for their opinion. On the Wednesday prior to the event Liam Rice spent a full day with me, and Michael Maunsell came on the Thursday. We worked methodically through the colonies with bare hands to make the final selection. Again it became necessary to reject some colonies that showed even a slight inclination to sting the fingers or ones that displayed signs of nervousness.

A Cry for Help

Quite a lot of preparatory work that I had not anticipated began to pile up as the day drew near so it was necessary to call in more members to help. As always they were ready, willing and able. On Friday morning I realised we needed many more frames fitted with foundation. Redmond Williams with the help of his two daughters Emma and Linda had fitted over seventy frames with foundation by lunchtime. Then Dennis Ryan arrived and he and Redmond assembled and primed fifty Apidea mini nuclei ready to be stocked with bees from the Bee Beard. Eoghan, Cormac, Micheál B. and Aoife arrived shortly after 6 o’clock and we began to take the bees from their hives and shake them off the combs into polystyrene brood chambers fitted with varroa screens for floors and containing frames of foundation and frame feeders. Three teams were involved in this final selection of bees and even at this late stage it was decided to reject the bees from two colonies even though the evening was turning cold and normally one would forgive bees for a little indiscretion at that late hour. We filled six brood chambers and mixed the bees from three to five hives in each box. There was scarcely any fighting that we noticed and very few bees were dead on the floors next morning.

The “Bee Chute”

When Philip arrived with his daughter Ciara and Eimear Burton from Ovation we were in the process of assembling the final piece of equipment. We had been puzzled as to how we were to get the bees to climb on to Philip’s body and it was Redmond, who is gifted with a good head as well as a good pair of hands, who came up with the idea of a chute made of polystyrene sheets and covered with a white bed sheet. It was to be mounted on a workmate bench and the end of the chute was carved out to fit exactly the curvature of Philip’s waist. All the equipment was taken to the field near Burncourt where the event was to take place next morning. This included wooden pallets for the scales on which Philip would stand and other pallets to take the six boxes of bees which were kept closed in overnight and each given a gallon of syrup as well as the frame feeder.

The Field

This field had been selected as it contained an old disused quarry which had been partly filled in and grassed over so that it was relatively level. This field was placed at our disposal through the gracious generosity of a Burncourt farmer, Eddie Conway who also allowed Jim and James Power to avail of the power supply from his milking parlour and opened up one of his paddocks to provide parking space for the many vehicles involved. One semicircle of the quarry face still remains, on top of which grows a dense fringe of trees and bushes providing shelter from the prevailing south west wind. However this “best laid plan” did not work out so well, as on the morning of the event a cold wind from the north east was funnelled straight into the quarry which caused us to wonder how the bees would react to the low temperature and cool breezy conditions. The Burncourt Community Council kindly placed the facilities of the Community Centre at our disposal and many availed of the opportunity to call in for refreshments before departing for home.

The Team

One could almost feel Philip shiver as he stripped down to his underpants. Some swarm lures and queen bee pheromone which were sponsored by Thorne’s were fixed under his chin. The haunting music of the bagpipes served to heighten the excitement of the onlookers as Dennis ushered Philip through the field and on to the scales. The chute was placed in position and two skeps were used by Jim Power to carry the bees from the hives to the chute. Jim, Claire Chavasse, P.J. Curran, and Michael Maunsell were involved in the delicate operation of taking the bees from the hives, transferring them to the skeps and thence to the chute. Bea Flavin used the goose wing to great advantage to marshal the bees so that they did not cover Philip’s face entirely. Eoghan and Micheál B. helped to marshal the bees from the chute on to Philip’s body with the judicious use of a little smoke and the occasional spray of fine mist. Dennis and Cormac were in charge of security. Dr Mary Coffey of Teagasc was in charge of the special weighing scales which was sponsored for the occasion by Avery. The whole operation was carried out under the expert supervision and watchful eye of Redmond who also managed to find time to make a video of the event as also did Ruary Rudd who travelled up from Kerry for the purpose. We are most thankful to them both for compiling these records of the occasion for posterity.

Mission Accomplished

1.    John Summerville and John Donoghue set up the Apimondia stand. Philip himself represented FIBKA as President. Joe Martin, Chairman, represented South Tipperary BKA as well as Secretary Dennis Ryan. The neighbouring Association of Co. Waterford was represented by Chairman, Tony Murray. Alice Fitzgerald, Secretary of Co. Waterford BKA and Bea Flavin, Secretary of South Kilkenny BKA were also present. It was a great privilege for me to be present as Chairman of GBBG and President of BIBBA and to be so deeply involved with the dedicated team of highly skilled bee masters from GBBG who were responsible for the huge success of this delicate operation. Some reports highlighted the fact that the attempt to break the world record had failed. We, Dark Bee enthusiasts look at this event from a different aspect and I must take this opportunity to congratulate Philip on his courage and the outstanding success of his mission which was regarded by many Irish beekeepers as a “Mission Impossible”. Not only did he gain huge publicity for Apimondia 2005 and raised much money for the beekeeping charities but he set up a record for the Dark European Bee that was never previously envisaged. In contrast to popular opinion that all Dark Bees are aggressive the success of this event has proved that the native Dark Bee can be as docile as any other European race of bees.

Pictorial Records

I must not forget to say a word of thanks to Dave Cushman who carried out a great deal of research and gave us much valuable advice which we subsequently were very glad to avail of. The results of this research has been recorded elsewhere.

2.    As well as the huge battery of cameras from the media a number of members of GBBG were invited to record the operation on camera for the archives of the breeding group. These included Gay, Aoife, James, Bridie, Bea, P.J., John Summerville, Cathal and Helen. Let the pictures speak for themselves and as the saying goes “The rest is history”.

Micheál C. Mac Giolla Coda.

Originated… 19 July 2005, Text Added… 21 September 2005,